[Paleopsych] NYT: Chinese Censors and Web Users Match Wits

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Mon Apr 18 19:37:41 UTC 2005

Chinese Censors and Web Users Match Wits

    SHANGHAI, March 3 - For many China watchers, the holding of a
    National People's Congress beginning this weekend is an ideal occasion
    for gleaning the inner workings of this country's closed political
    system. For specialists in China's Internet controls, though, the
    gathering of legislators and top political leaders offers a chance to
    measure the state of the art of Web censorship.

    The authorities set the tone earlier this week, summoning the managers
    of the country's main Internet providers, major portals and Internet
    cafe chains and warning them against allowing "subversive content" to
    appear online.

    "Some messages on the Internet are sent by those with ulterior
    motives," Qin Rui, the deputy director of the Public Information and
    Internet Security Supervision Bureau, was quoted as saying in The
    Shanghai Daily.

    Stern instructions like those are in keeping with a trend aimed at
    assigning greater responsibility to Internet providers to assist the
    government and its army of as many as 50,000 Internet police, who
    enforce limits on what can be seen and said.

    "If you say something the Web administrator doesn't like, they'll
    simply block your account," said Bill Xia, a United States-based
    expert in Chinese Internet censorship, "and if you keep at it, you'll
    gradually face more and more difficulties and may land in real

    According to Amnesty International, arrests for the dissemination of
    information or beliefs via the Internet have been increasing rapidly
    in China, snaring students, political dissidents and practitioners of
    the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, but also many writers,
    lawyers, teachers and ordinary workers.

    Already the most sophisticated in the world, China's Internet controls
    are stout even in the absence of crucial political events. In the last
    year or so, experts say the country has gone from so-called dumb
    Internet controls, which involve techniques like the outright blocking
    of foreign sites containing delicate or critical information and the
    monitoring of specific e-mail addresses to far more sophisticated

    Newer technologies allow the authorities to search e-mail messages in
    real time, trawling through the body of a message for sensitive
    material and instantaneously blocking delivery or pinpointing the
    offender. Other technologies sometimes redirect Internet searches from
    companies like Google to copycat sites operated by the government,
    serving up sanitized search results.

    China's latest show of growing prowess in this area came in January
    after a major political event, the death of the former leader Zhao
    Zhiyang, who had been held under house arrest since appearing to side
    with students in 1989 during the Tiananmen demonstrations.

    When the official New China News Agency put out a laconic bulletin
    about his death, placing it relatively low in its hierarchy of daily
    news stories, most of the rest of China's press quickly and safely
    followed suit. On their Web sites, one newspaper after another ran the
    news agency's sterile bulletin rather than take risks with commentary
    of their own.

    What happened on campuses was far more interesting, though. University
    bulletin boards lit up with heavy traffic just after Mr. Zhao's death
    was announced. But for all of the hits on the news item related to his
    death, virtually no comments were posted, creating a false impression
    of lack of interest.

    "Zhao's death was the first big test since the SARS epidemic," said
    Xiao Qiang, an expert on China's Internet controls at the University
    of California at Berkeley.

    But if the government is investing heavily in new Internet control
    technologies, many experts said the sophistication of Chinese users
    was also increasing rapidly, as are their overall numbers, leading to
    a cat-and-mouse game in which, many say, it is becoming increasingly
    difficult for the censors to prevail.

    At 94 million users, China has the world's second-largest population
    of Internet users, after the United States, and usage here, most of it
    broadband, is growing at double-digit rates every year.

    "What they are doing is a little bit like sticking fingers into the
    dike," said Stephen Hsu, a physicist at the University of Oregon who
    formerly developed technologies for allowing ordinary Chinese to avoid
    government censorship. "Beijing is investing heavily in keeping the
    lid on, and they've been pretty successful at controlling what
    appears. But there is always going to be uncontrolled activity around
    the edges."

    As with the policing efforts, the evasion techniques range from the
    sly and simple - aliases and deliberate misspellings to trick key-word
    monitors and thinly veiled sarcastic praise of abhorrent acts by the
    government on Web forums that seem to confound the censors - to
    so-called proxy servers, encryption and burying of sensitive comments
    in image files, which for now elude real-time searches.

    For those reasons and others, some Chinese experts have publicly
    advocated that the government gradually get out of the business of
    Internet censorship.

    "All of the big mistakes made in China since 1949 have had to do with
    a lack of information," said Guo Liang, an Internet expert at the
    Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. "Lower levels of
    government have come to understand this, and I believe that since the
    SARS epidemic, upper levels may be beginning to understand this, too."

    The most eagerly watched key word in China today is probably Falun
    Gong. "I don't know the number, but I would guess every Chinese has
    received a Falun Gong e-mail," Mr. Guo said. "There is no way to stop
    it. You can shut down the Web site, but you cannot kill the users.
    They just go somewhere else online, sometimes keeping the same

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